FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Nov. 3, 2018
Contact: Diana Mitsu Klos, director of engagement (202) 728-7267/ firstname.lastname@example.org
For their ingenuity and daring to publish a story about the firing of a popular teacher on a website they created after it was censored from their newspaper, Conor Spahr and Max Gordon are the recipients of the 2018 Courage in Student Journalism Award.
“Rather than knuckle under when Herriman (Utah) High School administrators took down an important news story, revoked their online credentials and took over their social media, Conor and Max launched their own news site,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which is based in Washington, D.C. “This is an inspiring example of an empowered response to an instance of censorship so egregious – and the magnitude of the story so important – that student journalists got the story out on their own.”
In the fall of 2017, Spahr, news editor, and Gordon, editor-in-chief of The Telegraph student newspaper at Herriman High School, began investigating why a history teacher suddenly stopped coming to school. Over a six-week period, Spahr interviewed teachers and students and filed Freedom of Information requests. They found out the male teacher was dismissed from Herriman High School for alleged misconduct involving inappropriate texts to an underage female student. The students also found out the teacher had a similar problem at his previous school, also located in Utah.
The story, “Herriman High Teacher Fired For Misconduct,” was posted on a Thursday and touched off a firestorm at their school, located about 25 miles from Salt Lake City. Local and nation news outlets picked up the story.
The next morning, Gordon and Spahr discovered the story was taken down from The Telegraph’s website by administrators and their access to the site had been revoked. They also could no longer access the paper’s social media accounts. Later that Friday the entire website was deactivated.
The students contacted the Student Press Law Center. “There was nothing factually wrong with the story,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel. “Obviously, school officials had concerns about the school’s reputation and may have been embarrassed. Those are not reasons to censor a story.”
Over the weekend, Spahr and Gordon purchased a web domain for $34 and by Sunday morning The Telegram was online with the slogan, “Student Run. No Censorship.” They re-published the story that had been censored. They set up Twitter and Instagram accounts for The Telegram.
Site visits soared (more than 35,000 in a week compared to about 10 a day on the school-dominated website) along with another round of local and national media coverage.
The story of the censored news story published on The Telegram and the need to create a new platform to get the story out generated interest across the country, including a profile in The Washington Post and National Public Radio, among others.
Gordon and Spahr have graduated from Herriman High School and are now college freshmen. They believe their efforts made a positive difference and that they fulfilled their journalistic duty.
Gordon said, “I am honored to be receiving this award along side Conor. The work we did would not have been possible without the help of the SPLC and specifically Mike Hiestand who provided us assistance whenever it was needed. I hope our story can show all high school journalists that if there is a story you feel is important, go for it. The SPLC and the journalistic community will be there to help you along the way; all that is asked of you is to take on stories that matter.”
Spahr said, “I am honored to receive this award from the Student Press Law Center. They continue to provide invaluable resources to student journalists nationwide, and were incredible to work with during the censorship of The Telegraph.
Without a free press, the happenings of a nation are completely concealed. A free press is especially important today as elected United States officials use their positions to attack the media. Journalists are the couriers of democracy, providing citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. This is why it is imperative for student journalists to stand up against censorship and confront authority figures when searching for the truth.
It has been a busy year for censorship in American high schools and I applaud all the student journalists that had the guts to oppose their school administrations directly in the face of censorship.
High School journalists should remember that while, especially at smaller schools, it may feel like they don’t have any weight or impact on their school or community, they provide an important service. Without The Telegraph’s story, a teacher with a history of inapproriate student relationships could still be teaching in Utah. Your impact is there, and it matters.”
The award is jointly sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, the Center for Scholastic Journalism (CSJ) at Kent State University and the National Scholastic Press Association. The CSJ funds the $1,000 award that Gordon and Spahr will split.
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of law, journalism and education to promote, support and champion the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. The SPLC provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.